The absolute best time of day was seven in the evening. Not six-thirty. Not even six-fifty-nine. Seven on the dot.
Greg fancied this hour particularly because he was finally able to rest. He didn’t have to answer any calls from his boss and his obligations to check his email rested until the following morning.
Seven in the evening was when Greg could be alone. And he liked being alone best of all.
An exhausted Greg entered his bedroom. He forfeited all control over himself and let gravity drop him into bed, tension from overwork dissolved as his body slammed against the sheets.
Greg let out a loud, blissful sigh, a farewell to all the stresses of the day as the responsibilities of tomorrow remained way off in the distance. His eyes closed as a smile spread across his face. All that was left were the crickets chirping peacefully outside his window and the empty, black canvas that his mind cleared out especially for the siesta ahead.
The silence was a treat. Every evening at six Greg would silence his phone in preparation of the hour approaching. On the drive home his mouth would water, yearning for the silence when seven struck. Just one more hour of footsteps hitting the linoleum office floor and elevator doors dinging and car horns honking. Then…
Ring, ring, ring.
Greg’s eyes shot open. That can’t be right, he thought to himself and reached his hand into his back pant pocket to pull out the ringing phone. He held the phone out to read in big letters:
Greg grunted. It didn’t matter who was on the other line. A call from work was always trouble.
“Yeah?” Greg answered, masking the dread that inched up from his stomach and into his chest. Inching…inching….
“Greg, it’s Fran,” a woman responded.
The inching ceased briefly then returned. “Yeah?”
“We need you at the office,” Fran said.
…And inching…and inching….
“I’m home,” Greg closed his eyes. This was it. This was where he was to remain.
…and up we go…
“I know it’s last minute but I spaced,” Fran gave a gentle plead. “But a major client’s website is going live tomorrow and the site reads like my eight year old niece’s book report.”
“Traffic’s a bitch, Fran,” Greg said automatically and the dread discontinued. He was a fish hooked in. No way out.
“Come at nine?”
Greg peered over at the digital clock on his bedside table. Seven o’five.
“Nine it is,” he said.
“Perfect,” Fran continued on but a ferocious knock at the door tuned her out.
Greg actually made an effort to listen to Fran’s instructions but the knocking grew impatient, louder. He had to answer it before it lead him to murder.
“Someone’s at the door,” Greg informed Fran. “I’ll be there at nine,” and he hung up.
Greg started toward the door, the knocking now a broken record that wouldn’t end. He unlatched the top lock and opened the door.
A small woman stood in the hallway of Greg’s apartment building.
“Hey there,” she said softly and it was almost impossible to believe that her small knuckles could muster the strength to thrash so loudly. Greg flashed his eyes swiftly at her hands to make sure they weren’t bleeding.
“Mrs. Winthrop,” Greg greeted her.
“I don’t mean to be a bother but there’s a terrible smell coming from your apartment,” she pointed her index finger passed Greg.
“From my apartment?”
“That you can smell from your apartment just below mine?”
“Absolutely,” Mrs. Winthrop nodded. “It’s strong. Did you not notice yourself? I can smell it from here.”
Greg rolled his eyes behind a passing blink, unnoticed. “I apologize, I’ve got a bad nose.”
“It’s been lingering awhile. I suggest taking your trash out more often,” Mrs. Winthrop said, disguising her demand with kindness well.
It came with practice. Mrs. Winthrop was the worst. She was a light sleeper so the slightest noise disturbed her. Old, rusted pipes were damaging her roof and it was Greg’s duty to inform the landlord with her and to also take shorter showers because the steam from his hot washes were fogging even her mirrors.
“I’ll do my best to remember,” Greg lied, and noted that he would look into new buildings with unfurnished units for rent when he got to the office.
Greg hardly waited for Mrs. Winthrop to bid him adieu when he shut the door. He looked at the clock on the stove: seven thirteen. There was still time for a quick nap, or at the least he could lay in bed until it was time to leave for work.
The beastly knock returned.
Once more, Greg groaned and opened the door, this time just enough to peep at Mrs. Winthrop. Instead, he flew his head out of the way as her arm shot through the tiny space.
“You dropped something!” she said as she held onto a ring with a shiny, sapphire diamond.
“That isn’t mine,” Greg told her and was about to close the door.
“Maybe it’s your lady friend’s!”
“Diane?” Greg had to think about this. Suppose it could belong to Diane, but he didn’t recall her every wearing jewelry when she came over. She hardly wore anything expensive, she was quite drab.
It was worth a shot. Greg took the ring from Mrs. Winthrop’s wrinkling fingers and took a look at it. He held up the ring and thanked her before shutting the door.
When he returned to his bed, Greg made sure to silence his phone. But Fran could call to cancel, you never know. He would hate to miss that call.
It didn’t matter. His phone rang silently, this time right in his face. It was Diane.
Greg answered. “Hey, Di, gonna take a nap before I head back to the office tonight, can I call you then?”
“I suppose I should take off this nice dress then,” an attractive voice said on the other end.
This was a peculiar thing for Diane to say. She was never sexy. Physically she was, but not in spirit. She would never—
Greg slapped his hand against his forehead. “I completely forgot about our plans.”
“That’s the third time in two weeks, Greg,” Diane said. She wasn’t frustrated, or even sad. Perhaps she had already accepted that Greg didn’t fancy her much.
And it wasn’t that Greg didn’t like her. He just liked solitude more. He had remembered the date earlier that day. Why, the whole day he was cooking up new excuses to cancel their plans and trying out the many different ways to let her down gently.
Greg liked Diane. He really did. But maybe…he didn’t. At that moment he didn’t really know, but if she never wanted to call him again that would be fine. Probably for the best. A partner took a lot of sacrifice.
“Come to the office if you want,” he said but instantly regretted it. “You left a ring here, I think.” He picked up the ring and examined it.
“I don’t think so,” Diane responded.
“To what?” Greg looked away from the ring. “Coming by the office or the ring?”
“I haven’t worn a ring in ages, Greg,” she said, almost amused. They had been seeing each other for months. Greg should have noticed her naked fingers by now.
He had. He knew this couldn’t be hers, because–“it’s a men’s ring,” he said.
“Interesting,” Diane was intrigued.
“No, it isn’t mine. Mrs. Winthrop found it outside my door. Probably a passerby’s.”
Greg didn’t like to interact much with the world beyond his apartment. He didn’t trust anyone in the building. When he moved in his landlord had informed him that strange disappearances had occurred by the unit’s former tenants years ago. All unrelated. The apartment had been unoccupied for awhile until the day that he arrived. Greg didn’t think much of it but told himself to always keep one eye open.
“Mrs. Winthrop stopped by again? That’s several days in a row now. She’s see you more than I have.”
“Good one,” Greg looked at the ring some more. “Looks like it fits me.”
“The ring,” Greg said, annoyed, and tried the ring on. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Perhaps it was from Mrs. Winthrop herself. If you two were married she could control every thing you do.”
“Just what I need. A second woman to nag me.”
“Do you want to see me?”
No, Greg said to himself. Even he thought he was too mean and he was the only person who heard it.
“Of course I do!” he said defensively.
He didn’t have to, though. Diane didn’t sense that Greg wasn’t interested in her company. They had been together for so long, with Greg feigning his enthusiasm to be with her that she took his lack of interest as a defunct form of expression. Maybe that WAS his way of loving a girl and he was too self-absorbed to notice his own social imperfections.
“I’ll see you soon then,” Diane hung up the phone.
“I just want to be alone,” Greg begged. “For one minute. I just want to be alone.”
The phone said it was seven thirty-two. That gave Greg an hour before he had to leave for the office. This was plenty of time for a fast snooze. He had earned it.
It didn’t take long for Greg to fall fast asleep. When he woke up he felt groggy and confused.
Mrs. Winthrop must have heard him snoring. He did that during a good nap, he wasn’t ashamed. That sleep had hit the spot. Almost too good to have been an hour…
SHIT! He had slept too long. He didn’t know for certain but now that he was coming out of his drowsiness the feeling of oversleep was apparent within him.
Greg grabbed his phone that he had left next to his pillow and called Fran.
“Hi, this is Fran–”
“Fran, I’m on my way,” Greg interrupted. “I overslept and–” he stopped.
“–leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can,” was all he needed to hear to shut him up.
It was Fran’s voicemail and it was time to leave a message. Greg apologized and told her he was on his way.
“I don’t know what time but I’ll be there as quickly as I–”
He looked at the bedside clock. Seven thirty-three.
That can’t be right. He definitely slept longer than a minute. It must have been one of those quick sleeps that felt like an eternity, but in actuality was a mere few minutes.
But exactly one minute? Too peculiar.
He hung up the phone. That was embarrassing, he thought and rested his head back on the pillow.
No way. I don’t believe it, Greg thought and looked at the time on his phone: seven thirty-three.
Second opinions are as bad as the first, right?
Greg stood up and walked out of his bedroom toward his kitchen. The clock on the stove read the same.
That was enough to subside Greg’s fears. His heart returned to a steady pace as he went for his refrigerator to find a snack. All that sleeping sure left him hungry.
That whole minute of sleep. Greg closed the refrigerator and pondered on this some more. He hadn’t eaten much that day, sure, but he felt fine when he laid down earlier.
Food had been the last thing on his mind. Maybe he just wasn’t thinking about it and now that he was, the hunger struck.
Must be it. Had to be. Case closed.
Jesus. Now shutting the refrigerator bothered old Winthrop? Greg was in too good of a mood to allow her nagging to consume his peace of mind.
Greg reached for an apple that sat at the top of a fruit bowl on his kitchen table and sat down on the couch. He turned the television on and flipped channels.
“You may be a doctor, Steven, but no one can save him, not even you,” a damsel in distress said from the television.
Greg laughed. Soap operas amused him. He flipped the channels some more.
“Emily thinks she can hook up with any guy she wants, and now she’s hitting on my boyfriend?! I would have marched straight over and kicked her ass right then and there but I had a hair appointment and my dresser doesn’t like me to be late–”
“Kids love snacks. And if you love your kids you’ll buy all of their snacks from Hillside Farms–”
“Your storage is still full, Marvin!”
“It’s time to play, WHO WANTS MONE–”
Storage Bids it is, Greg settled. He turned it back to hear Stanley the host of the show really stick it to the apprehensive and unlikeable Marvin. He was old–grandpa age–and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Marvin as he just accepted the bullshit that Stanley threw at him, with his “I’m so sorry Stanley, I can do better next time if you give me the chance. Let me stay and I’ll prove it to you.”
Stanley could have smeared horse shit all over Marvin’s face and Marvin would have stood there silently and took it. It was a sad sight to behold.
“Your storage is still full Marvin!” Stanley repeated.
THUMP–THUMP–THUMP went Mrs. Winthrop.
Marvin shrugged hesitantly and gave Stanley the same “I’m so sorry Stanley” garbage he had given him earlier.
This made Stanley recycle his speech on why Marvin deserved to be eliminated.
“They don’t even try anymore.”
Greg clicked away. Back to the soaps for a chuckle.
“You may be a doctor, Steven, but no one can save him, not even you,” the damsel said to Steven, the doctor.
“Marcia,” Steven said dramatically and flipped his flimsy, brown hair. He gazed into Marcia’s eyes. “If you think that I can’t save my own brother’s life–” dramatic pause–“then you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
Now it was getting annoying. Steven was in the middle of a really significant moment for his character. Marcia didn’t think he could save his own brother’s life. And Steven, with his scalpel already in his hands as they towered over his brother, nearly dead in the middle of the street, was about to prove her wrong.
“You may be a doctor, Steven, but no one can save him, not even you,” Marcia repeated.
“Marcia,” Steven said and looked directly into Marcia’s eyes again. “If you think that I can’t save my own brother’s life–” there was that dramatic pause again–“then you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
“Huh,” was all Greg could say.
That was enough. Every little movement Greg made may have bothered Mrs. Winthrop but nothing could get as disturbing as all of that knocking and broom thumping that she did. He should be complaining to her. And maybe he will.
Except it had to be about time for him to go. He turned off the television and rose from the couch.
“I would march straight over there and kick her ass…but I have a hair appointment and my dresser doesn’t like me to be late,” Greg laughed to himself and as he passed by his stove the time on the clock nearly sprung out at him: seven thirty-three.
“But that can’t be.”
Greg went back to the television and turned it on. An experiment was necessary.
“Marcia…If you think that I can’t save my own brother’s life…then you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
“I’m so sorry, Stanley. I can do better next time if you give me the chance–”
“–so get your Hillside Farms snack pack today–”
“You may be a doctor, Steven but no one can save him, not even you–”
“Kids love snacks–”
“What in the world! Marvin, your storage is still full-”
As Marvin began to apologize again, word for word, Greg went back to the clock on the stove. He must have looked at it for more than a minute.
“Marvin, your storage is still full–”
“The time’s not changing,” Greg said to himself aloud. “It’s seven thirty-three, it hasn’t changed.”
Greg looked at the ring that he had placed on his finger and knew the something magical was afoot. If it were to remain seven thirty-three then he wouldn’t have to go into work. He wouldn’t even have to see Diane. Why, he didn’t even have to concoct any excuses for this one.
Sure, there was that awful–
But he could get used to it. He could catch up on his reading and lay around for hours, free of the chains that life had locked him in unwillingly for all these years.
This truly was the time to relax. Perhaps he would take a day or two to rest and unwind before heading back to work. A little break from Diane would be nice, too. It would give him a chance to analyze his feelings and see if he’d miss her.
And Greg did exactly that. The hours passed, or rather the same minute repeated itself for what felt like an eternity and after many, many seven thirty-threes had come and gone and returned and thumped, thumped, thumped, Greg had grown restless.
“I need to get out,” Greg told himself.
He threw on a coat and unlatched the lock on the door but when he turned the doorknob it wouldn’t budge. The door was always pretty dingy, but it felt stuck. Not even stuck, but sealed shut.
Greg had spent far too much time alone in his apartment to allow a broken door to keep him from leaving. He moved over to a window and attempted to open it. No dice.
THUMP–THUMP–THUMP went Mrs. Winthrop, or whoever it was that was down there. Greg really didn’t know anymore. At this point the thumping became so apart of his routine that he heard it no longer.
After trying out several windows–all of which wouldn’t budge–the thumping started to stir up a cabin fever within Greg that had been waiting to boil for some time.
Then an idea came to him.
Greg held out the ring and if it had eyes he would have looked into them, just as Steven the doctor did with Marcia the damsel.
“Ring, I’d like time to move along now,” he told it. “I believe I’ve had enough rest. Please.”
Silence. That was a good thing. If the thumping had subsided, then perhaps time had carried on.
Greg turned his body around toward the stove and waited for the time to change. Waited…and waited…
Any second now…it will do it. Greg was certain.
The numbers on the clock began to switch over. It was finally happening. The clock would soon read–
Greg let out a heavy sigh. Why hadn’t it worked?
Longing to hear a familiar voice, Greg gave Diane a ring.
“This is Diane, leave a message!”
“Hey Diane, if you get this within the minute, give me a ring, will you? Would be nice to hear your voice.”
Greg set the phone down on the table. He hadn’t tried calling Diane in all this time. Perhaps she was experiencing the same problem, too–and that would surely be something to talk about for hours!
Greg could hear Diane now. “You’re trapped in your room, too? You don’t say! Small world.”
Her voice was the perfect combination between calm, yet always eager to push the conversation on. Now that he hadn’t heard her in who knows how many seven thirty-threes, he yearned for it. He could hear the voice in his head but was starting to forget it.
And she could call back, she very well could. He hadn’t tried connecting with anyone since Fran, and he knew Fran wouldn’t answer but he hadn’t given Diane the chance yet. Surely she wouldn’t let him down.
Well, at least he tried. In the bottom of his stomach he felt the dread begin to inch it’s way up, crawling up toward his chest with every intention of escaping his body. Escaping because it had been trapped inside of him for so long and needed to get out.
And inching…up, up, up. In the throat now.
Up and up and up. Faster and faster. Headed toward the mouth. Running. It’s going to come out. It’s coming, Greg, so open wide. So close to the edge…
“ENOUGH!” Greg shouted and threw himself at the floor.
He began to pound his wooden floor with a heavy fist, violently and quite painfully (on his end) as if he was beating Mrs. Winthrop in the flesh.
“How do you like it, huh?” he yelled and when the pounding became too bloody of a mess, he pulled away but remained leaning on all fours.
“I don’t want to be alone anymore! I want the time to move! I want to see Diane! I want to see her even just for a second! Please just let me out!
Where had the third knock gone? Greg wondered. He looked over at the clock.
It was over. All over. Had to be. Please let it be over.
His bedroom door opened, steadily and with such delicacy that Greg couldn’t help but wonder if he was hallucinating it.
To his surprise, Diane’s head popped into the room. Greg had forgotten how pretty she was. He took in her soft features and the soothing smile on her face, assuring him that everything would be okay. The storm had finally passed.
“Diane,” Greg remained on all fours on the floor. He rose up and walked over to her, longing to touch and hold another person.
“What’s the matter, Greg?” she asked in a low voice as she entered the room. She allowed Greg to embrace her.
“I…had a bad dream,” was all he could say.
“Oh, I left something in the other room.”
“Stay,” Greg held onto her tightly.
“I can’t, Greg, one second, please!” was all she said before she went back into the room and shut the door.
Greg waited patiently, staring at the door. She would be back, wouldn’t she? She had to. He had wished for her and the wish came true, hadn’t it?
RING. RING. RING.
His phone. That could only mean that things were back to normal. Perhaps it was seven thirty-four and Fran was calling him back. He reached for his phone and answered.
“Hi Fran,” he said and he listened to her discuss his duties for when he arrived at the office in an hour and a half. He glanced at the clock on the stove:
It was over. All over. Thank god. Thank god–
The terrible knocking drowned Fran’s voice on the line.
“Fran, I have to call you back or the knocking will never stop,” he hung up the phone and rushed over to the door.
When he opened it, there Mrs. Winthrop stood, smiling at him, as if to say “welcome back!”
“Hi Mrs. Winthrop!”
Soon her smile faded. “I’m sure you heard me from downstairs.”
“Sure did,” Greg laughed. “Loud and clear.”
“Wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
“All good over here. Finally,” Greg nodded, accepting this wonderful reality.
His bedroom door opened again Diane’s head popped through yet again.
“You’re back,” Greg said, relieved.
“What’s the matter, Greg?” she said as she reentered the room.
Greg turned to Mrs. Winthrop in the hallway but she has gone. He shut the door and crossed back to Diane.
Immediately, she focused her attention back to the bedroom. “Oh, I forgot something in the other room.”
“But you were just there–” Greg gripped her arm tightly.
Diane pulled her arm away. “I can’t, Greg, one second, please,” and with that she headed back into the room.
What in the world, Greg wondered as he watched her leave yet again.
RING. RING. RING.
Work calling. He refused to answer, letting the ringing continue until–
He walked to the front door and opened it. There was Mrs. Winthrop, smiling at him. He shut the door and kept his hand pressed against it to keep her out. No. This can’t be happening.
The ringing continued.
There was the bedroom door, opening slowly. And there was Diane.
“Greg, what’s the matter?” she asked as she stepped into the room.
“Oh, I left something in the other room,” Diane said and marched back into the bedroom.
This time Greg followed her in. When he entered the bedroom he was alone. The ringing and knocking refused to cease, but Diane was gone. He ran back into the living room and checked the stove clock:
“Time is moving…but…”
“What’s the matter, Greg?” Diane asked, head sticking out from behind the door.
“Time is moving…but…”
Greg fell onto his knees.
“Oh, I left something in the other room,” he heard her say.
“I just want to disappear,” was all he said, staring at the floor.
This was his final forfeit. His plead to the gods that he had given in. He wasn’t strong enough. He couldn’t move forward.
Diane poked her head through the door, “Greg?” she asked, but no one was there.
She entered the room and looked around. All of the lights were on. That was peculiar. She hadn’t left them on earlier.
“Greg, are you there?”
Diane walked over to the door. She unlatched the lock and opened it. Mrs. Winthrop stood in the hallway, hands folded and rested on her belly.
“Mrs. Winthrop,” Diane asked desperately. Perhaps Mrs. Winthrop knew of Greg’s sudden disappearance and would inform Diane of his whereabouts.
“Any luck finding him?” she asked Diane.
Diane sighed. “I was hoping for good news from you.”
“Strange that he just wandered off like that. He wasn’t here when you arrived?”
“He was supposed to meet me at his office an hour ago,” Diane told her. “When he didn’t show up I came here and all the windows and the door were open. His clothes were on the floor too. Like he took them off in the middle of the room.”
Diane took a step back to show Mrs. Winthrop the clothes laying neatly on the floor. Black pants. Red flannel shirt. Black shoes and a cell phone.
“Very odd,” Mrs. Winthrop said.
Diane looked off in the distance. “Indeed,” she said lowly.
“He looked tired,” Mrs. Winthrop added. “I hope wherever he is, he is getting the rest that he needs.”
Diane peered at the small woman suspiciously.
“It’s past my bedroom,” Mrs Winthrop said. “Let me know how the search turns out.”
“I will,” Diane watched Mrs. Winthrop start down the hallway. “Mrs. Winthrop?”
The little woman stopped in place and faced Diane. She waited patiently.
“Do you know who this belongs to?” Diane held up the golden band with the sapphire ring.
“Why, that’s mine!” she walked over to Diane and accepted the ring. “I’m so glad you found it. I don’t trust anyone in this building. Thank you, dear.”
Diane forced a smile, but said nothing.
“Well, goodnight,” Mrs. Winthrop said to kill the silence.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Winthrop.”
Diane kept her eye on Mrs. Winthrop until she was only a speck way off in the distance. Greg had always said that he didn’t trust the other tenants. “Keep one eye open,” he would say to Diane in the hallway as he locked his apartment door.
“Sleep peacefully tonight, Mrs. Winthrop!” Diane called out, and her voice carried all the way to the far end of the hall where Mrs. Winthrop stood at the top of the stairwell.
“I will,” she smiled back. “You don’t have to worry about that!”
And down the stairs she went. Thump. Thump. Thump.
The absolute best time of day was seven in the evening. Not six-thirty. Not even six-fifty-nine. Seven on the dot.